It’s late spring and the mountains of the Westfjords are still covered in snow after a harsh winter. The undulating, unpaved coastal road to Strandir is a challenging drive at this time of year, with steep slopes, the risk of landslides, and sheer cliffs down to the sea. After a while weaving carefully around the curves of the mountainside, you eventually glimpse a few buildings—the remains of what was once the thriving village of Djúpavík.
On the gentle descent into this remote hamlet, you pass a scenic waterfall that tumbles from the high cliffs, before reaching a huge run-down industrial building with a rusty old shipwreck in front of it. This hulking structure is the old herring factory, which was shut down in the 1950s when the herring stock crashed.
In the 1980s, the dilapidated structure was bought by Ásbjörn Þorgilsson and his wife Eva Sigurbjörnsdóttir, currently Djúpavík’s only year-round residents. They run a hotel and a tourist service which is one of the most popular attractions in Strandir, along with the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík and Krossneslaug swimming pool in Norðurfjörður.
Coming to Djúpavík
Upon entering the hotel, housed in a building that was once the factory workers’ quarters, you find yourself in a cosy lobby and dining hall, where walls and shelves are tastefully crammed with all kinds of bric-a-brac. Eva, who exudes a calm and kind presence, is busy in the kitchen as it’s approaching dinnertime, but allows for a short-ish interview.
“I first came here in 1984 when my husband bought the factory,” says Eva. “I remember my first thought, when I drove past it and stared up at it, was: ‘It’s huge!’”
Indeed, the factory was the largest concrete building in the country in the 1930s. Eva says the couple’s original plan was to start up a fish breeding programme and revive the factory for it, but they had difficulties financing that venture, so instead they founded the hotel. “We saw that there was a need for some tourist services here,” she says. “There weren’t even any toilets or anything, and we needed to make a living space for ourselves anyway so it was two birds with one stone.”
A mystic pull
Neither Eva nor Ásbjörn had any connections to Strandir or Djúpavík before moving there, but quickly fell in love with the place. “I never meant to be in this role, standing over pots and pans,” says Eva. “I wasn’t too happy about moving here at first. I was educated as a preschool teacher, and I would have liked to use that education. But then I was just so smitten with Djúpavík, as were the whole family. We love this place—probably more than anything else.” Eva pauses, not quite able to articulate why Djúpavík has such a pull.
But the hotel is there nonetheless, and has drawn an ever-growing number of visitors in the thirty years it has been in business. The traffic started slowly, but has been increasing rapidly, particularly in the last five years or so. “Of course, the boom in winter tourism didn’t quite reach us here,” she says, “because of the bad roads. But it’s still growing, and when the roads are open, people do come. They come for the peace and quiet and the nature and the northern lights and all those typical things.”
It seems that once people have been to Djúpavík, they are drawn in, and return again and again. “We have some regular visitors,” says Eva. “There are people who come here every year, even many times a year.” She recounts a story of an elderly man from Germany who first came to stay at the hotel the year it opened. “He kept coming back more and more frequently until he was coming here every year and he would stay for three weeks. It was just like having your grandpa over for a visit, everyone got excited when he was about to arrive and I think he enjoyed being around us. He took photos and used them in a calendar which he sent us for Christmas, and we sent him presents back. Ási [Ásbjörn] and I went to visit him in Germany once and we meant to do it again but he passed away before we could. He was a regular like no other, he had become like family.”
Culture and eco-tourism
It’s not only tourists who are drawn to Djúpavík—the town also attracts many artists who are inspired by the location. Djúpavík has a rich history, and the hotel staff provide daily guided tours through an exhibition on the subject, located in the factory’s spacious halls and crumbling corridors.
Each summer, several artists exhibit their works in the factory and musicians perform at the hotel. According to Eva, musician Svavar Knútur is a regular performer who often visits, and staff member Claus Sterneck has displayed his photos in the factory for several years. In 2006, Sigur Rós held a memorable concert there as part of their “Heima” tour. Last year, there was a design exhibit showcasing several designers’ work with driftwood, which is plentiful in Strandir, and historically important for local economy.
By hosting such exhibits and events, Eva and Ásbjörn support the tiny cultural scene of the area. They also pride themselves on being the only eco-friendly tourism service in Strandir, with a strong environmental policy. “We always buy our goods in eco-friendly packaging, and use refillables. I also sort all our waste, and we don’t have showers in every room. It’s not ecological that everyone’s messing with water and soap at the same time.”
Eva and Ásbjörn have been running their hotel for thirty years, and Eva says that they’ve just started thinking about what they will do when they get too long in the tooth to continue. “I hope someone will take over the business,” she says. “Maybe our children. They’ve all helped with the business—increasingly so, in the past few years. Then us oldies can retire and relax. Or maybe,” she adds with a grin, “we’d just stick around to grumble over all the things we’d feel they’d be doing wrong.”
But Eva cannot quit just yet—she feels an obligation to the region, being the chairwoman of the Árneshreppur municipality council, which entails all kinds of official duties. There are three years left of her term, and the future after that is undecided. But with tourism in Strandir still booming, and the increasing popularity of its more remote parts, it seems likely that the hotel will continue from the strong foundations laid by Ásbjörn and Eva.
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